NASCAR

Do Not Doubt Jimmie Johson

Despite poor Chase start, history shows Johnson still the driver to beat

by Mike Neff

For the last four years on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, the mantra has been the same at the start of the Chase: Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have another title in him this season. Or crew chief Chad Knaus is behind the times. Or this will be the closest Chase ever. Or, quite simply, Johnson’s luck will run out. Yet somehow in each of the last four seasons, Johnson and Knaus have mastered the last 10 races better than the rest of the Chase field.

Exclude From Games: 
0
Two Right Sidebar Images
<p> Athlon Sports contributor Mike Neff warns that, despite Jimmie Johnson's slow start to NASCAR's Chase, he should never be counted out. And history proves him to be correct.</p>

0

NASCAR Horsepower Rankings

Smoke rises as Chase heats up

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Tony Stewart  Difficult to place him anywhere else. Smoke has two consecutive wins and an average finish of fourth over the last four weeks. Lean & mean after shedding the dead weight.

2. Jeff Gordon  Probably had the best car in New Hampshire, but the fuel calculations were off. That most likely cost him six valuable championship points, which could come back to bite.

Exclude From Games: 
0
Two Right Sidebar Images
<p> Tony Stewart leads Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings for the first time this season after his second straight win in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.</p>

9. Ryan Newman  Led the first 62 laps after sitting on the pole in Loudon, but a flat tire with five laps to go was a killer. This team still has the potential to rebound, but how far is unclear.

10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Another victim of tire issues, Junior blew one out while running sixth with 71 laps remaining. Even when this bunch runs well, they can’t seem to catch a break.

11. Kurt Busch  Busch’s day in Loudon started bad and stayed that way.

12. Clint Bowyer  A near-win with Harvick’s cast-away’d pit crew had to feel like a moral victory.

13. Mark Martin  Led 46 laps after gaining track position, but faded to 24th in a frustrating ending.

14. Denny Hamlin  Three laps to go. Running sixth. Out of fuel. Such is the No. 11 team’s season.

15. David Ragan  Has quietly pieced together three consecutive runs of 11th or better.

Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr.
 

0

Two'fer Tony Stewart

Stewart wins second straight, assumes NASCAR Chase lead

by Matt Taliaferro

Most had written off Tony Stewart as a legitimate 2011 championship contender — including himself, if you believed his words in the midst of a 27th-, ninth- and 28th-place string just six weeks ago. After all, his No. 14 team was winless through NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, averaging a pedestrian 14.2-place finish with only three top 5s.

Exclude From Games: 
0
Two Right Sidebar Images
<p> Tony Stewart won his second straight race to lead off NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup with a win in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.</p>

0

New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Preview NASCAR's Sylvania 300

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Race: Sylvania 300
Location: Loudon, N.H.
TV: ESPN (2:00 p.m. EST)
2010 Winners: Jimmie Johnson (June); Clint Bowyer (Sept.)
July Winner: Ryan Newman

Exclude From Games: 
0
Two Right Sidebar Images
<p> Athlon Sports previews the second race of NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Sunday's Sylvania 300 from New Hampshire Motor Speedway.</p>

0

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s New Paint Scheme

Earnhardt Gets Diet Mountain Dew Look in 2012

Dale Earnhardt Jr. unveiled his 2012 Diet Mountain Dew paint scheme — pictured top right — on Wednesday via Facebook, rolling out a predominantly silver Chevy with Mountain Dew’s familiar green, red and black accents.

AMP Energy, co-primary sponsor of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car following the 2007 season, will take on a reduced branding role next season. PepsiCo, whose contract with Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 88 teams runs through 2012, is the parent company of both AMP and Mountain Dew.

Exclude From Games: 
0
Two Right Sidebar Images
<p> Dale Earnhardt Jr. unveils his 2012 Diet Moutain Dew paint scheme.</p>

The new look is more reminiscent of Buddy Baker’s famous “Grey Ghost” car than the classic early ’80s Mountain Dew machines driven to a pair of titles by Darrell Waltrip in 1981 and '82. And this writer, for one, was hoping for more of a “contemporary” revision of Waltrip’s Buicks — particularly when one considers Earnhardt's love of NASCAR history and his hands-on approach to paint schemes. In fact, the Diet Mountain Dew throwback paint scheme Earnhardt drove in one race last year (bottom right), would’ve done just fine.

Agree with Matt? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him what you think of Junior's new paint job. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro

0

NASCAR Horsepower Rankings

NASCAR's northern Chase swing in full effect

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jimmie Johnson  Looked like the typical Chase race for Johnson ... until he was bit by the fuel bug. Still, how many teams do you know can run out of fuel on the final lap and still finish 10th?

2. Kevin Harvick  True to form, “The Closer” was running down Tony Stewart in the closing laps at Chicago. However, this time he came up short. Still your championship leader, though.

Exclude From Games: 
0
Two Right Sidebar Images
<p> Tony Stewart makes a move up Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings after an impressive Chase-opening win in the GEICO 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.</p>

8. Matt Kenseth  Kenseth was Stewart’s main competition until — yes, you guessed it — the tank ran dry. And a little “help” from Travis Kvapil was salt in the wound.

9. Kyle Busch  Busch seemed to have a decent car in Chicago, but could never gain the track position he needed to run up front. Oh yeah, he ran out of gas, too.

10. Kurt Busch  Kurt says he’s in Jimmie Johnson’s head, but after listening to him rant to his team on the radio, I think Kurt’s pit crew is in Kurt’s head.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  Was a legit top-10 car at race’s end. That everyone ran out of fuel in front of him was icing on the cake.

12. Denny Hamlin  What a difference a year makes.

13. Mark Martin  13th on back in the Horsepower Rankings is more or less irrelevant … much like on the Cup circuit!

14. AJ Allmendinger  It wasn’t pretty at Chicago, but credit AJ for a month of solid runs.

15. Clint Bowyer  Returning this week to New Hampshire. Also known to Bowyer as “the scene of the crime.”

Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, David Ragan, Martin Truex Jr.

Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro

0

Smokin' Start to the Chase

Tony Stewart wins first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway

by Matt Taliaferro

Just days ago, Tony Stewart called himself an underdog in the Chase for the Championship. Two weeks prior, he wondered aloud whether his No. 14 team even deserved a spot in NASCAR’s playoffs. On Monday, Stewart proved he’s no underdog — and he surely belongs in the company of title contenders — as the two-time Cup champion kicked off the Sprint Cup Series’ Chase by saving enough fuel to outlast the field in the GEICO 400 from Chicagoland Speedway.

Exclude From Games: 
0
Two Right Sidebar Images
<p> Tony Stewart captured his first win of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season in the sport's first Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway.</p>

0

NASCAR Chase Preview

Can anyone unseat Jimmie Johnson?

by Matt Taliaferro

Exclude From Games: 
0
Two Right Sidebar Images
<p> Athlon Sports handicaps the NASCAR Chase for the Championship field, wondering if there is any team on the circuit that can end Jimmie Johnson's five-year reign as Sprint Cup Series champion.</p>

As for Busch, I’ll believe a “New Kyle Busch” exists just as soon as his older brother proves he’s really in Johnson’s head. Kyle is an on-track skirmish away from going thermonuclear still — although “thermonuclear” may be overstating it a tad. You can’t deny the progress he’s made in the “Quit Being a Jackass” department, but that attitude seemed to be what gave him an edge.

Busch’s equipment is the other concern. Despite all the wins over the last three years or so, Joe Gibbs Racing always manages to trip themselves up in the Chase somehow or another. That said, Busch seems to be much kinder to his equipment (under the hood equipment, that is) than his teammate, Denny Hamlin. This is a big Chase for Kyle from a career-standpoint perspective, so not fading is important. If he finishes in the top three I’ll be convinced he’s ready to take on the mantle of Sprint Cup Champion in 2012.

One driver who has no convincing to do is Jeff Gordon. A rejuvenated Gordon, with ace-in-the-hole crew chief Alan Gustafson, has the desire, hunger — and at long last, the pure speed — to give Johnson all he wants. The four-time champ is finally throwing W’s on the board again, and winning a race or two in the next 10 is imperative. If anyone is to slay the Goliath that is the 48 team, this is it.

Carl Edwards was the latest, and thus far, only multi-time preseason pick to give Johnson a run for his money. It’s been a strange season for Edwards, though, as he has enjoyed only one trip to Victory Lane thus far. Granted, it’s safe to say that the team was doing some R&D (and contract) work through the summer and has rounded into form. He’ll factor, although to what extent is not yet clear.

Skipping down the standings a bit, Brad Keselowski looks dangerous. Yeah, it’s easy to jump on a guy’s bandwagon when he’s hot and in his second full-time campaign on the Cup circuit, predicting a title run may be putting the cart before the horse. But Keselowski is a different bird. He seems to thrive on high-pressure situations, completely at ease while in the eye of the hurricane. Where Denny Hamlin fumbled one away last year, Keselowski can be counted on to keep both hands on the ball. If — and that’s admittedly a big “if” — he can keep pace through the first six races, he’s a guy the big boys don’t want to see near the top heading down the stretch.

What’s there to say about Matt Kenseth? He threw up a flurry of victories this year (for Kenseth, a flurry is two) and deceptively cruised through the first 26 races, showcasing a consistency that’s become his trademark. He’ll need another flurry to bag this title, which may be asking a lot, as his style is not conducive to a 10-race hot streak. That said, he and crew chief Jimmy Fennig will have their moments. Just not enough of them.

Kurt Busch’s No. 22 team is an enigma. World-beaters one week, out to lunch the next. Has the success of his teammate (Keselowski) hindered Busch’s performance? That may seem like an asinine question, but I’m convinced the more a guy shouts one thing from the rooftops, the less likely it’s true. In this case, Busch claims to be in Johnson’s head (riiiiippppp…), implying his team is the mentally superior of the two. I don’t buy it, and I don’t buy that Kurt and his crew are serious title threats.

There’s quite a dip down to the four remaining Chasers. Ryan Newman has put together a nice season thus far with 13 top 10s. But is the sixth Hendrick team — OK, we’ll call them the fifth Hendrick team with Mark Martin all but gone — capable of winning this whole dog ’n’ pony show? And what of his Stewart-Haas teammate and car owner, Tony Stewart? What a long strange trip it’s been for his No. 14 team. Quite frankly, something’s amiss there to the point that there is no magical switch for Smoke to throw and make it all right. Maybe Danica Patrick’s input next season will help …

Then there’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Look, Junior made for a nice story earlier this season when he posted a slew of top-12 showings, but while other teams have improved, Junior’s has stagnated. Some of the Chase tracks favor The Son, but like Stewart, there’s no magic switch to be thrown.

That leaves Hamlin, the latest in a long line of drivers who got out-drank by Johnson last season and is suffering a year-long hangover. Hamlin could actually surprise, although if he gets in an early hole, it’ll be R&D Season for the 11 team. A win isn’t out of the question, but a championship is.

So in the end, I believe it’s a two-horse race between Johnson and Gordon, with Harvick, Edwards and Keselowski not too far behind. And like I said earlier: Until someone proves they can take down the most dominant team of the decade, I have to side with the 48 team.

Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro

0

Pages